Laura Lippman, whose novels have won numerous crime-fiction prizes, calls “Sunburn” her first venture into noir, in part inspired by her admiration for James M. Cain’s classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” It is indeed a dark tale with no shortage of sex and violence. It is also an impressive achievement, particularly in her creation of Polly Costello, a sometimes lethal woman who may or may not be more sinned against than sinning.
Polly, although blessed with a happy childhood, had the misfortune to be impregnated at 17 by a man six years her senior. She married him, and he soon became a drunken, corrupt Baltimore cop who beat her. When he threatened to kill her and their child, who has cerebral palsy, Polly responded by stabbing him in the heart while he slept.
In court, her battered-wife defense failed, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Four years later, the governor pardoned her. Freed, Polly again married because of a pregnancy, again regretted her decision and finally set out to escape. It helped that she knew something her husband didn’t: that with the help of a crooked insurance man, Polly had sued the hospital where her first daughter was born and won a settlement that should net her $2 million. Her daughter was by then a ward of the state.
Early in the novel, on a beautiful spring day, Polly and her husband and younger daughter are on a trip to a beach near Ocean City (That’s where sunburn comes in). Polly uses this as an opportunity to flee: She ditches her family and catches a ride that leaves her stranded in a small town in Delaware. Polly is broke — her lawyer has yet to deliver Polly’s share of the settlement — so she takes a job as a waitress. Her plan is to win a divorce, collect her money and retrieve both her daughters.
One day, a good-looking fellow named Adam Bosk turns up in the restaurant. He says he’s a traveling salesman, but soon he’s so smitten with Polly that — being an excellent cook — he takes a job there. “He’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan,” Lippman explains. Polly didn’t want to fall in love, but Adam is clearly a step up from the two men she married.
In truth, Adam is not a traveling salesman; he’s a private detective sent to find Polly by the crooked insurance man, who wouldn’t mind seeing her dead. But Adam’s job was to find her, not kill her. Having found her, he complicates matters by falling for her.
If I had any problem with this novel, it was accepting that Adam, a bright guy who knows Polly killed her first husband and deserted the second — and may have committed another murder since he met her — would want to marry her. Polly is said to be attractive and to possess an “innate wildness in bed,” but his rush to matrimony nonetheless struck me as dubious. Still, given Lippman’s confident storytelling and the truth, universally acknowledged, that we men are often numskulls where women are concerned, I came to accept Adam’s passion. Everybody’s somebody’s fool.
The novel is enhanced by delightful writing. Out in the woods one day, Adam spots a bear “lumbering past as if rushing to catch a bus.” Lippman sums up Polly’s pragmatism thusly: “The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.” Her goals are the insurance money, her daughters and her freedom. Polly is no saint, but she still dreams of a decent life.
Lippman’s story builds toward two questions: Whether Polly and Adam will live happily ever after, and whether the crooked insurance man or her spurned husband will try to kill the lovers. That cannot be revealed here, but it’s fair to say that the ending Lippman has devised for her experiment in noir is a total surprise and, this reader thought, a good one.
Patrick Anderson writes regularly about thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By Laura Lippman
Morrow. 292 pp. $26.99